I admit that I hate it when some cheesy-faced, TV newsreader appears on my set with an overly toothy grin on his or her face to announce that Mrs. Peabody is “100 years young.” Being 100 years old is a noteworthy achievement. Give her the recognition she deserves. She is old. Call her old. Calling her ‘young’ is insulting and when the description comes from some smarmy pup, smiling only to be adored by the camera, it is doubly insulting.
That’s the problem with some attempts to develop politically correct descriptions of people – too many of them fail to describe. A person who can’t see is blind. Call him blind. A person unable to walk does face the challenge of being unable to walk. Why is it deemed good and proper to refer to him has specially-abled rather than handicapped? I’m sure that each person so afflicted does have his or her own special abilities, but that mis-guided description doesn’t describe. As such, it too is insulting. It’s as if we are embarrassed to speak the truth about him so we invent some silly, non-descriptive, misleading term to cover it up.
Conscientious people do try to use politically correct terms, and I support using terms that make sense, but I balk at using terms that attempt to hide realities. Descriptive terms need to be accurately descriptive.
Imagine the following verbal interchange.
“We’ll have to make provision for him because he’s blind.”
“Oh! Don’t say ‘blind’! Calling him blind is knowing him only by his limitation.”
“Blindness is a limitation, and we have to make provision for it.”
“Well, I know we’ll have to provide him with help, but let’s at least call him ‘specially sighted’.”
“I’m sorry. You have a big heart, but we have to communicate effectively and ‘specially sighted’ obscures the issue. He’s blind! Let’s make an effort to help him get this experience.”
There are many cases in history when terms for well-known people and places have had to change. Some were easy to come by, others were struggles, still others failed.
Cases in point are that what is now New York was once New Amsterdam. But English settlers eventually outnumbered Dutch settlers and they renamed the place in the infancy of its development. Similarly, Istanbul was once Constantinople, but changing allegiances toward empires dictated that change and it stuck.
A change that is currently underway and making good, well-deserved headway in language is that the Inuit people are successfully getting people to stop calling them Eskimos. Though the term Eskimo, which means “eaters of raw meat” was not meant to be derogatory, as such, it is not what they call themselves. They call themselves, ‘Inuit.’ I recall that I used to explain this name change to my ESL classes by stating the obvious. “Italians call themselves Italian. What do they eat?” (Despite the fact that Italians eat many things, my students would invariably come up with “pizza!”)
“Okay,” I’d say, “so would it be okay for me to introduce my student, Luigi, to the class by saying, ‘Here’s Luigi! He’s Pizza!’?” The students would all laugh at the silliness of my example, but they also got the point. Occasionally one of them might offer, “I’m Shawarma!” or “I’m Sticky Rice!” or “I’m Kimchee!”
Despite some success with the Eskimo-to-Inuit change, as a group, the First Nations peoples have not been so lucky. Most folks still know them as Indians. Many of them refer to themselves (casually, not formally) as Indians. The term “Aboriginals” is also in the mix as is “Indigenous Peoples” and “Native Peoples.” That lack of consistency makes efforts to change difficult.
A similar thing has happened with African-descended people. I think that the term African Americans may stay, but I am old enough to have witnessed several iterations of describing dark-skinned people. What I first learned as “coloured people,” or “negroes,” became “black people” which became “people of colour,” and has now morphed into “African Americans.” They all made some sense, although I struggled to rationalize the awkward term “people of colour” as being in any significant way different than “coloured people.”
It was once explained to me that putting the term “people” before the descriptor “of colour” showed respect for the fact that they were people first. But the logic did not hold up for me unless we would propose to restructure the English language to place nouns before adjectives the inefficient way that many languages do. In that case, we’d have to get used to saying “…the ball that is red,” rather than saying, “… the red ball.” I did not find it disrespectful to put the adjective first. African Americans, or Canadians as the case may be, seems adequately accurate to me and I hope we are at the end of that particular struggle to find an acceptable descriptor.
So name changes have been easy and logical in some cases, difficult in others and some have even failed.
When Columbus “discovered” the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, he thought he had reached the eastern shore of Asia. He wasn’t too sure of the exact shape of Asia, so he declared he had reached India. But a knowledgeable participant on a later exploration of the New World could do the math of his position on a large sphere, and he, Amerigo Vespucci, reported to his patrons that this was not Asia. He didn’t know what it was, but it was clearly not Asia.
Thereafter, in 1507, a German cartographer, Martin Waldseemüller, made a world map that used the name Amerige in honour of the man who seemed to know where he was in the world. Waldseemüller later had doubts and tried to re-name the continents, labelling them, “Terra Incognita.” But 1000 maps with the name Amerige had already been distributed. The name spread, was changed slightly to reflect the tradition of feminine names for continents, Asia, Africa, Europa, America. When famed map maker Geradus Mercator (Mercator projection) made his map in 1538 there was no turning back. The continents were the Americas.
Leif Erikson’s supporters can lay no claim to the name. Columbus’s descendents can lay no claim either. The western hemisphere is comprised of the ‘Americas.’ Case closed.
All of which comes back around to this semi-sincere request. When I reach an age so old that youngsters wish to bring it to other peoples’ attention, and some 30-something aged smile-for-the-camera type calls me “120 years young,” someone do me a favour. Reach out and slap him! I’d do it myself but doubt that I’d be able to do it at age 120. I’d be too old for that.